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Israel Urges Allies in D.C. To Ease Criticism of Cairo As Egypt Ups Gaza Effort; Sharon Passes Plan, but Pays Political Price

WASHINGTON — Eager to protect Israel’s budding security relationship with Egypt, Israeli officials are urging Jewish activists in Washington to stop pushing for American political action against Cairo.

The request from Jerusalem to Jewish organizations came days after a May 31 telephone conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in which the two leaders reportedly agreed on a general plan for Egypt’s involvement in efforts to keep the peace in Gaza as Israel prepares to withdraw from the area. Further progress was made between the two countries this week, during a visit to Cairo by Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Despite this week’s developments and Israel’s resulting eagerness to avoid embarrassing Mubarak, the House of Representatives, partly under prodding from Jewish activists, will hold two hearings next week dealing with points of contention between Washington and Cairo. During the hearings, congressional staffers confirmed, members of the House are planning to voice strong criticism of Egypt.

Egypt has emerged in recent weeks as a key player in fleshing out Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, working with Palestinian officials and groups on a plan to keep the peace in Gaza after Israel pulls out. In the last two weeks, Israel appears to have accepted Egypt’s role as prospective guarantor of the peace after Israel withdraws.

Under a deal hammered out this week during the Israeli foreign minister’s Cairo trip, as many as 150 Egyptian security officials will come to Gaza in the next few weeks to train and restructure the Palestinian security apparatus. In addition, Egypt will deploy 130 police officers on its side of the border near the Rafah area of Gaza, to help prevent the cross-border smuggling of weapons to Palestinian militants. And Israel and Egypt agreed to form, for the first time, a bilateral committee to settle issues of dispute between the two countries.

The upcoming House hearings, organized by the House International Relations Committee and its subcommittee on the Middle East, were planned weeks ago. Jewish organizations were hoping to use the hearings, featuring testimony from both Bush administration officials and non-government policy experts, to expose Egypt’s apparent failure to prevent the cross-border smuggling of arms to Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Following the pleas from Jerusalem, most Jewish groups have called off their anti-Egyptian lobbying efforts, which included calls for hearings on the tunnels and cuts in U.S. military aid to Egypt. But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who chairs the Middle East subcommittee, told the Forward last week that she is planning to use the hearings to discuss the smuggling of weapons through underground tunnels that run from the Egyptian side of the border into the southern area of Rafah in Gaza.

“My decision to hold hearings to address the myriad of issues which comprise U.S. policy toward Egypt is not a recent one,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “The Rafah tunnels, the subject of recent [Israeli] action in Gaza, will be an important component of the discussions at the upcoming subcommittee hearing.”

The full House International Relations Committee has scheduled a hearing for June 16. The Middle East subcommittee is set to hold its own hearing the next day.

Egyptian officials, who were under the impression that the causes for tension between Israel and Egypt would not surface at the hearings, were surprised to hear that Ros-Lehtinen is planning to discuss the tunnels.

Egyptian officials challenged the allegations that their government is not doing enough to block the cross-border smuggling. Egyptian sources said that the tunnels are difficult to locate. However, the sources insisted that Egyptian security forces are actively searching for them and blowing up whatever entrances are discovered on the Egyptian side of the border.

Egypt has been working for months, mostly without success, to broker a cease-fire agreement among Palestinian groups that would end attacks on Israelis. In recent weeks the Egyptian intelligence minister, Omar Suleiman, has met repeatedly with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including both Sharon and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, to draft a Gaza security agreement that would be acceptable to both sides. The deal reportedly involves unification of Palestinian security forces under Egyptian oversight. Arafat would agree to give up all control of the Palestinian forces to his prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, and a newly appointed interior minister. In return Israel would agree to lift its two-year restrictions on Arafat’s movements and let him travel between the West Bank and Gaza.

Neither side has agreed to the full plan, but Israel has shown keen interest. Israeli analysts say Egypt, after initially hoping to create an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, is now aiming to conclude separate agreements with Israel and the Palestinians, in deference to Israel’s unwillingness to talk with Arafat.

Arafat, for his part, reportedly received an ultimatum from Suleiman in late May that he must accept the plan by mid-June, or else Egypt would “no longer guarantee his safety” in the face of Israeli threats, Israeli news reports said.

Before the negotiations entered high gear in June, Israeli security officials had been harshly critical of Egypt, going so far as to accuse Mubarak’s government of aiding terrorists in Gaza. Last month, Sharon’s national security adviser, Giora Eiland, told a crowd of Middle East analysts, diplomats and journalists in Washington that Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt is a good example of why a peace treaty is not always the best way to resolve a conflict between countries. To the amazement of many at the symposium, hosted by the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Eiland said that Egypt failed to serve as a bridge for Israel to normalize relations with the Arab world and that Egypt’s ongoing efforts to acquire modern arms make it a larger threat to Israel than Syria. Other Israeli security officials, including Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, have sharply criticized Egypt for failing to stop the smuggling.

Pro-Israel activists in Washington say that officials at the Israeli Foreign Ministry are now directly contradicting the earlier message from security officials. Israeli diplomats have been sounding a less confrontational line, so as not to alienate the Egyptians, according to pro-Israel activists in Washington.

Most Jewish organizations, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobbying group on Capitol Hill, have ceased their lobbying against Egypt. One exception is the Zionist Organization of America, which has also been voicing strong public opposition to Sharon’s plan to stage an Israeli pullout from Gaza and dismantle all the Jewish settlements there. The organization’s president, Morton Klein, said that no Israeli official had asked him to refrain from criticizing Egypt. He said that his organization is planning various actions to protest Egypt’s alleged unwillingness to stop the flow of arms into Gaza.

The ZOA is demanding that Egypt not be given a role in training the Palestinian security forces. The organization is calling on Congress and the administration to reconsider the levels of financial aid that America gives to Egypt. “We believe that Egypt is not playing a positive role,” Klein said, “and we are determined to expose it.”

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